Even Mother Nature couldn't rain on '54 parade of Orioles, Turley

April 05, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,Evening Sun Staff

The weather, that's what everyone remembers:

April gloom in Baltimore, circa 1954.

"A bleak and blustery afternoon," The Sun reported.

"A horrible day," Bob Turley recalled.

Fifty-two years had passed since the city's last major-league game. Now the Orioles were back, ready for their debut at Memorial Stadium, and it was raining on their parade.

The players rode to the park in convertibles. Turley remembers getting into his uniform on the train from Detroit, where the club had opened the season. And, oh yes, he remembers the parade.

In a few hours, he would defeat the Chicago White Sox, 3-1, and ensure his place in Orioles history. But at that moment, he was setting foot in Baltimore for the first time. He was 23.

"There must have been half-million people lining the streets," the Troy, Ill., native said. "I thought they were a bunch of nuts. We were used to being with the St. Louis Browns. We didn't draw anybody."

Well, an estimated 350,000 fans attended the parade, and 46,354 witnessed the game -- a magical, suspenseful, wonderful affair that served as a gala premiere for the stadium's glorious 38-year run.

The rain stopped 30 minutes before the first pitch, or maybe it was 15. The fans never did get to see batting practice, but they stirred as the starting pitchers warmed up.

For the Orioles, "Bullet" Bob Turley.

For the White Sox, Virgil "Fire" Trucks.

Trucks, soon to be 35, would win 19 games that season, but it was his last big year. Turley, just out of the service, was the new phenom. He would lead the league in strikeouts, and his best was yet to come.

Their paths would cross again; indeed, they're still crossing. But no one knew any of this on April 15, 1954, the day this city's great baseball mystery began to unfold.

Ironically, Trucks was a St. Louis Brown the year before, so he just missed being an original Oriole. It didn't happen only because he was traded to the White Sox in a four-player deal the previous June.

The transaction included $75,000 for St. Louis owner Bill Veeck, "so we could get enough money in the bank to make a payroll," recalled Bill Hunter, a former Browns and Orioles shortstop and later Orioles coach who is now athletic director at Towson State.

That 1953 St. Louis team also featured the legendary Satchel Paige, but he never became an Oriole, either. Paige finished 12-10 -- and didn't pitch again in the majors until 1965, when he made one appearance for Kansas City at the age of 59.

But back to Trucks. He tied for the league lead in shutouts in '54, finished second in innings, third in strikeouts, fourth in wins. It seemed doubtful he'd lose to a team that lost 100 games the previous year -- and would lose 100 again.

When the rain stopped, Turley said, "It seemed like a miracle." But when Clint Courtney and Vern Stephens hit solo home runs off Trucks in the third and fourth innings, well, it seemed like something more.

The homers provided the Orioles' eventual margin of victory, something that didn't happen too often in 1954. No Baltimore player reached double figures in homers that year. Stephens led the club with eight.

At first, the team's leading power hitter probably was Vic Wertz, a lefthanded slugger who grew frustrated seeing his best drives run down 400 feet away in right-center, starting with that very first game.

The unfortunate Wertz was traded to Cleveland on June 1, then achieved lasting fame in the same maddening fashion, when Willie Mays robbed him of extra bases with a spectacular over-the-shoulder grab in the '54 World Series.

Actually, the original Orioles featured two pitchers who became actual Series heroes -- with the New York Yankees. One was Don Larsen, who finished 3-21, only to throw the lone perfect game in Series history two years later.

The other was Turley.

He spent only one year with the Orioles, then was sent to New York with Larsen and Hunter in the first part of a whopping 18-player trade. His big year was 1958, when he finished 21-7, won the Cy Young Award and was Series MVP.

In '54 he led the Orioles with 14 wins, including his seven-hitter in the stadium opener. He struck out nine that day, and the only run he allowed came on singles by Chico Carrasquel, Nellie Fox and Bob Boyd in the seventh. The Orioles made it 3-1 on Wertz's RBI single in the bottom half.

As good as Turley was against Chicago, he was even better in his next start, the first major-league night game in Baltimore. He struck out 14 and was only two outs away from a no-hitter when he allowed a single to Al Rosen and a homer to Larry Doby, losing to Cleveland 2-1.

"Thirty-seven years," Turley said. "Ooh, that's a long time." Newspapers in 1954 cost a nickel. Zsa Zsa Gabor was on Divorce No. 3. And when people whispered about "Reds," they meant the ones from Moscow, not Cincinnati.

Five of the Orioles' original starting nine are now deceased: Courtney, Stephens, Waitkus, Wertz and second baseman Bobby Young. Centerfielder Gil Coan and leftfielder Sam Mele are 68, Hunter is 62, Turley 60.

Today, Turley is part-owner of a financial services company. He lives in Marco Island, Fla., and Trucks, 71, resides in nearby Port Charlotte. The two were teammates with the Yankees in '58, and they remain good friends.

Together they'll fly to Baltimore in Turley's eight-seat jet for the final Memorial Stadium opener, no doubt reminiscing about the day it all began, the day they threw smoke and rekindled this city's baseball fire.

"It was quite a bit of history," Trucks said.

Not bad, for a bleak and blustery afternoon.

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